Love and Shame and Loveby Peter Orner
Alexander Popper can't stop remembering. Four years old when his father tossed him into Lake Michigan, he was told, Sink or swim, kid. In his mind, he's still bobbing in that frigid water. The rest of this novel's vivid cast of characters also struggle to remain afloat: Popper's mother, stymied by an unhappy marriage, seeks solace in the relentless energy of
Alexander Popper can't stop remembering. Four years old when his father tossed him into Lake Michigan, he was told, Sink or swim, kid. In his mind, he's still bobbing in that frigid water. The rest of this novel's vivid cast of characters also struggle to remain afloat: Popper's mother, stymied by an unhappy marriage, seeks solace in the relentless energy of Chicago; his brother, Leo, shadow boss of the family, retreats into books; paternal grandparents, Seymour and Bernice, once high fliers, now mourn for long lost days; his father, a lawyer and would-be politician obsessed with his own success, fails to see that the family is falling apart; and his college girlfriend, the fiercely independent Kat, wrestles with impossible choices.
Covering four generations of the Popper family, Peter Orner illuminates the countless ways that love both makes us whole and completely unravels us. A comic and sorrowful tapestry of memory of connection and disconnection, Love and Shame and Love explores the universals with stunning originality and wisdom.
Author of God of War
author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
author of The Brief History of the Dead and The Illumination
"Orner anatomizes family relationships with precision in a novel that spans threeand touches on fourgenerations....He approaches his narrative with a nonlinear chronology, moving back and forth from Seymour's wartime notes to Bernice, to Alex's adolescent peccadilloes, to Alex's letters to Ella. The result is a masterful, multifaceted novel. Readers will find both love and shame in abundance in Orner's teeming fictional world."Kirkus Reviews"
Vibrant and captivating, this novel about three generations of the Popper family of Chicago resonates with truths about human nature....Orner's surefooted control of his narrative gradually discloses information that conveys emotional and physical atmosphere....Two themes-sometimes comic, often rueful-intersect throughout: the secret shames, frustrations, and humiliations that each character endures, and the search for love that blossoms and then fails in each generation. A richly layered, intimate picture of a distinctive but also typical family enduring life's vicissitudes and stoically carrying on."Publishers Weekly"
Orner [has a] gift for the well-placed single word that can denote full-throttled exasperation....Addictively compelling."Library Journal"
Love and Shame and Love is a marvel. It left me with that feeling we all crave when we read-the sense of wonder you wake with after a dream, realizing just how mysterious is this world."Marisa Silver, Author of God of War"
Auden said that art is born of humiliation, which seems an ideal place to start appreciating Love and Shame and Love. A keen-eyed observer of American life and history, Peter Orner strips every layer of pretense from his characters, not to diminish but rather to reveal them. What's exposedwhat they have been hiding from one another and from themselvessurprises, one suspects, even the characters themselves. This is a real and memorable America."Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl"
Love and Shame and Love is a finely crafted family album, told in comic and heartbreaking snapshots, of America in the 20th Century. Orner has captured his characters in motion, bringing the past exquisitely and precisely to life even as he illuminates the present, timeless, struggle to make family, and life, meaningful. This is a big, smart, generous, important novel."Antonya Nelson, author of Bound"
I consider Peter Orner an essential American writer, one whose stories unfold with a flawless blend of ease and unpredictability. Every sentence he writes is wide awake to his characters' hearts, and it is for the clarity with which he makes me feel time working its changes in their lives, and by extension in my own, that I keep returning to his books. Esther Stories was among the best story collections of the last decade. Love and Shame and Love is among the best novels of this fresh new one."Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Brief History of the Dead and The Illumination
"Love and Shame and Love is an epic book epic like Gilgamesh and epic like a guitar solo. When I finished it, my head was buzzing, my heart was pounding, and I was pumping my fist high in the air for Peter! Goddamn! Orner!"Daniel Handler, author of The Adverbs
PRAISE FOR ESTHER STORIES (2001)"
The spirit of Esther Stories is, like true beauty, no aesthete, and, like true love, no sentimentalist." Marilynne Robinson
PRAISE FOR THE SECOND COMING OF MAVALA SHIKONGO (2006)"
A gorgeously written book, very funny, and bursting with soul." Dave Eggers, Guardian"
Orner hits the right notes and no others...He has written a starvation diary about desire with as much sexual tension as a bodice buster." Mark Schone, New York Times Book Review
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The New York Times Book Review
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Love and Shame and LoveA Novel
By Orner, Peter
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Orner, Peter
All right reserved.
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A CREATIVE WRITING MAJOR IN THE AUTUMN OF MIKE DUKAKIS, OR FIRST LOVE
Often he thought: My life did not begin until I knew her.
—Evan S. Connell, Mr. Bridge
In the early seventies there was an epidemic of Playboy Bunnies hurling themselves out windows of the John Hancock Building. Leo informed him that these bunnies weren’t rabbits. They were women, women with long pointy ears and puffballs over their breasts. Popper was five. He would imagine them falling, all that air speeding past those ears. But these bunnies never landed. Theirs was a free fall that went on and on—and on. And even then he thought he understood why they did it. That if you spent so long so high, so so high, it was only inevitable that you’d need to feel that drop, Hugh Hefner and Chicago itself be damned. If it’s time to fall, let’s fall.
Ann Arbor, 1988
The scene: the basement of the Undergraduate Library at the University of Michigan, the most hideous concrete mistake of a building ever architected by man, i.e., the UGLi.
It’s 2 a.m., Tuesday.
The UGLi is a raucous place, loud conversation, coffee, beer, music, a little dope in the bathrooms, some isolated studying here and there. Popper’s not studying. He’s in his cubby, half-sleeping, half-reading William Blake. Not for class. Popper likes to carry certain books around and announce before anybody even asks: This book? No, actually this isn’t for class. And it’s not pleasure reading either. There’s no such thing as pleasure reading. It’s all pain, pain—and more pain.
If you trap the moment before it’s ripe,
The tears of repentance you’ll certainly wipe;
But if you let the ripe moment go
You can never wipe off the tears of woe.
She’s a mere four cubbies away. At first he spies only the back of her head, her blond-brown ponytail rising above the plywood like a beacon. He ducks beneath his desk and eyeballs down the row of legs. Her running shoes are off her feet, one socked foot scratches a naked shin.
Blake admonishes, nay, threatens—
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
Popper stands up and laps the cluster of cubbies six, seven times, as if pursuing great thoughts. All the while, surreptitiously, observing her in this basement light, in this noisy purgatorial fluorescence. Each time he passes, he peers a little closer over the rim of her cubby. Never has a square of plywood held so much promise. Details? At present she is eating a Butterfinger. Very unique candy bar. Famous yellow wrapper. Concentrate. Don’t babble. Tell your head to stop babbling. She places her index finger and her middle finger over her mouth when she chews. She is reading intensely. He can almost see her eyes move across the words. God, if I could only read like that. I read two sentences and my brain wanders to Tegucigalpa. Her face, describe her face. Why is it so hard to describe a face? May as well describe a soul!
(Question for Creative Writing Professor (adjunct), Tish O’Dowd Ezekiel, author of a good, sad novel called Floaters, which refers to those small black wings that rain down our eyes:POPPER:
Professor O’Dowd Ezekiel, why is it so hard? Why are things like trees or cars easier, when we spend much of each day staring into faces?PROFESSOR O’DOWD EZEKIEL:
Ah, but do we, Mr. Popper? Do we really ever truly look at each other, see each other? It would seem to me that we spend our days not looking into each other’s faces.)
Body easier. Legs easier. Breasts easier. Always. Because men are inherently infantile? Something to do with our relationship to the memory of our mothers? Hers? Only rising hints of sweatshirt. Small undiscovered planets? You know they’re there, but they’re so distant they may as well be conjectures.
Retreats to his own chair. Spies low again. She crosses her legs, one way, then another, then uncrosses them. For no recordable reason, Popper thinks of the word lethe. He gets up again and approaches the dictionary, the great dictionary that stands alone in the middle of the room, beneath all that buzzing light, like a weird pulpit nobody ever sermons from. Popper flaps the pages of truth and/or metaphor. The stream of oblivion in the lower world, hence, forgetfulness.
Maybe I’m spelling it wrong?
Ah, Lithe. Supple, bendable, that’s better. Supple, an exciting sort of word. Back again to his cubby headquarters. Use it in a sentence. I hope you don’t mind my saying hello. I find you beautiful but also lithe, not to be confused with lethe, which means something else entirely, having to do with memory, or rather loss of it, yet as it is, I can’t forget you. Are you by any chance a dancer?
She gets up to talk to a friend sitting in another cubby. The friend’s face hidden, nothing but a mass of curly hair.
“How’s it going?”
“I’m so bored of psychology I could go on a shooting spree,” Mass of Curly Hair says.
Gripping Blake for courage, Popper makes his move and drops the note on her desk. He notes the title and the author of the facedown book. The Need for Roots. Simone Weil. Never heard, must look him up.
And flees to the bathroom. Popper, hiding in a stall, waits. In the bowl, a forlorn unflushed turd the color of knockwurst. But even in there, he hears her laugh. A blasting, honkish, gooselike sound. The UGLi goes quiet. He’ll learn this. How this girl could laugh entire rooms—banquet halls—into silence.
Lindy, seriously, look at this, some doof’s writing notes.
AT YU LIN’S
Wait, you’re a what?”
“It’s a new undergraduate major.”
“Philosophy. Interesting. Really. And difficult. Wow, philosophy, wow. I’ve read Kierkegaard. God ordered Abraham to murder his kid and Abraham said, Okay okay, whatever you say, not a problem. He didn’t even try to get out of it. He didn’t run away to Nineveh, which sounds to me like a pretty fun place. That’s faith? I mean, at least Jonah gave defying a totally unreasonable God a shot. And Kierkegaard says Abraham’s a great man? To me, he just sounds like a bad dad. Did I miss something?”
She just let his gibberish float there between them without answering. Lunch at a Chinese restaurant on South University. The place was dark, the blinds drawn against the afternoon sun. Above each table a small round bulb; Popper thought, Each table its own sad moon. This isn’t going very well at all. She is from Wisconsin and her name is Katherine but her father had called her Kat since she was six minutes old. Kat Rubin. I’ll never see her again.
“Who do you read, then?”
“Oh, you know, lately a lotta Ray Carver.”
“People call him a minimalist, but that’s really a misnomer. Carver just doesn’t use a barrel of words to say something he could say in half a phrase. He’s the poet of modern despair. Drunken, laconic husbands. Lonely, cheating wives. You know, the gritty truths—”
“Fuck that. Are you related to Karl Popper?”
“Never heard of him.”
“How many Poppers could there be?”
“I’m not sure there needs to be any more.”
“He’s this supposedly important philosopher.” She waved a tuffle of rice squeezed between two chopsticks before his eyes. “It was Karl Popper who brought scientific rigor to the so-called soft sciences. You have something on your chin. Some sauce. Karl Popper said, for example, that astrology was bunk and sociology was even bunkier.” She licked her finger and reached across the table to his chin. She touched his chin with her licked finger. She touched his chin with her—
“How did he feel about Scientology?” Popper asked.
“Quick,” Kat said. “Name the lovechild of Karl Popper and L. Ron Hubbard.”
She honked a brief laugh. “Nice. Not that I’ve ever read Karl Popper. Nobody reads him anymore. I guess he served his purpose. To bring scientific rigor to whatever whatever whatever. Seems kind of obvious to me. Systems need proof. Okay, next.”
She pressed her chopsticks to her lower lip and watched him watch her. Popper took this in about his relation. A kinsman rendered irrelevant, these days unknown even to his own family.
“Oh, Kierkegaard’s just romantic. That’s a different deal altogether. Abraham was prepared to kill Isaac because he loved him and he loved God. And God didn’t make him do the deed because He loved Abraham. In Kierkegaard, everybody loves everybody. I’ll take Kant. If we’re estranged from ourselves, how can we not be estranged from other people, much less love them? Kant says that what we don’t know—or wait, maybe that’s the existentialists—”
Popper gripped the side of the table. The entire lunch he hadn’t once used his chopsticks. Sitting there half listening, watching her eat, her fingers brilliantly, acrobatically, tonging those thin little wooden sticks while he shoveled food into his mouth with a common fork like a hayseed. Possible to switch to chopsticks now, this late in the game?
He opted to stop eating altogether.
She stood up and stretched, fluttering her arms toward the ceiling. “You’re done? I think I’m done.” He watched her go up to the front and pay the bill for both of them. On the sidewalk outside, the sun white and bulbous, she said, “Did you notice nobody working there was Chinese? A Chinese restaurant should have at least one Chinese person—What are you up to now?”
What am I up to now?
It was the autumn of Mike Dukakis. What could possibly go right? In a month, Popper would cast his first vote in a presidential election. And on the other side of campus, the bells in the tall clock tower ring, the bells ring…
ON THE RUG
Kat refused to live in the dorms. What am I, a lab rat? She smelled of lip gloss and sweat. Amazing, and also deeply disturbing, how fast two near-strangers can go from Chinese food to a wrestlingish tussle on a worn-out rug in an attic room amid the trees. Her walls were practically all window. No furniture, only the bed they weren’t using. Skin that seemed as far away an hour ago as, say, the Yukon Territories is now right here beneath his shocked fingers, his entire body (led by his still blue-jeaned pelvis) in a state of ecstatic flux, now spastically, aimlessly, freakishly thrusting, a twitch, and aw no no, shit, shit, shit—
To distract, to buy time, to cover up, to ward off the unwardoffable, he clutches her and he tells this stuff about the Yukon Territories, trying to remain calm, casual. “Isn’t it amazing how a clothed person is another country? For instance, earlier today, to me, you were—your body, I mean—was the Yukon, Canada’s northernmost—”
“Are you a little repressed or something?”
She reached inside his boxers. His heart banged deep in the well of his ear.
“Oh, I get it.” One goose-honk, two goose-honks.
“Just give me a little time.”
“You know what you need to do?”
“Just a little time—”
“Grip yourself. You know, when you’re still stiff. You want to cut off the blood flow, like a tourniquet. Plus, you’ll probably enjoy—”
“Please stop talking.”
“It’s called shunting.”
“I’m only trying to impart some friendly advice.”
“Do you do this with everybody?”
“Give this sort of advice?”
“This. After a lunch date. Come back to your place and—”
“Are you a monumental prick? Metaphorically speaking since as far as I can tell—”
Kat rolled over and pushed the hair out of her eyes and began sliding downrug. Describe the attic room with windows on three sides, her on that frayed rug, his ecstasy, his shock, his humiliation, his what? The dappled afternoon light. The tall oaks lurking outside like voyeurs. Her chin edging down his chest. Describe it. Her chin—Why not just say happy? For once? Why not say joy, as derived from the thirteenth-century word originally connoting rejoice?
“Cool apartment,” Popper connoted.
She tongued his knee. “Don’t talk now.”
“Where have you been my entire life?”
She paused, looked up. “You believe in that?”
Fourteen degrees with the wind chill, October, Michigan versus Wisconsin. Eighty thousand drunk fanatics bellowing for blood, nothing whatsoever at stake, Wisconsin’s 1–7; the only team they’ve beat is Northwestern.
How to even begin to describe this ocean of complete idiots?
Popper and Kat scrunched, huddled, blanketed. Popper making a point of holding Stendhal up in front of his face.
“Watch the game,” Kat says.
“The Charterhouse of Parma has more excitement in its pinkie than anything in this entire stadium. Fabrizio sleeping is more interesting. The public’s tax dollars go to support this sort of quotidian stupidity. Do you have an idea how much Bo Schembechler gets paid?”
“Have more Jim Beam.”
“It’s like a Nazi rally. Hitler entering liberated Vienna and the crowd goes wild for the Führer—Anyway, you’re for Wisconsin—”
“Fuck yeah, Badgers!”
And their voices lost in the loud, more white breath than words.
“Don’t you need a hat?” Popper says. “Your ears are going to splinter off.”
Kat raises the bottle to her lips and swigs, hands it to him.
“Drink the hooch, Popper.”
There’s a certain kind of cold that merges people in the same way that two metal objects freeze together. You can’t pry them apart until you inject heat. He thinks about how long it will take them to warm up in that tree-house room. How his feet, even in the morning, will still be cold. He thinks of her hungover breathing, her mouth open, her eyes half-open. He takes another view of his brethren. Humanity encapsulated in this great oval of inanity, and yet he could love these people, every million one of them, he could—
“And please don’t use the word quotidian in ordinary conversation.”
Kat hiccups whiskey and he thinks this, thinks—
On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Plunge right through that line…
A May evening and the sun squats motionless above these stately roofs. Two women sit in front of their little house, one on the humble stoop; the other on a chair on the lawn. They are reading. Both books are thick. (Textbooks? After all, we are blocks from the university.) And yet the two women read gently, almost lazily. There is no doom in the Midwest tonight. Only rows and rows of words. Small hands turn pages without haste. One of the women on the lawn has red hair; the other has on some sort of bonnet. The City of Trees is at peace. The gnats roam down the sidewalk in waves.
There’s more, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, is there more?”
“You hate it.”
“I like it.”
“What do you mean by more?”
“Isn’t something supposed to happen? Is it a poem?”
“You think something has to happen?”
“Is that so terrible?”
“Requiring something to happen is tantamount to literary tyranny. Think of all the people who nothing ever happens to. How could we ever do them justice on the page if we’re always giving their lives some kind of arbitrary action? Some people just read in the yard while sitting in a chair.”
“Their entire life?”
Kat took another look, holding the paper above her head and mouthing the words as she read. They were in her attic, in her house of windows. Popper watched them both in the multiple reflections, two people on a bed, in the light, one lying on her back reading a single typed piece of paper, the other sitting up and watching the one read. If she could read his mind at this moment, which she could have done if she wasn’t reading his story, she would have said, Popper, you watching yourself watching me isn’t watching me, it’s watching you. I’m only incidental to the process, the reader as ornament. The real star is you—
“I got an idea,” Kat said. “What about if before these two started reading, they ate some shrooms? That way nothing would have to happen, but they’d think something did. Let them hallucinate a little. This is how all the people you were talking about get through their lives. They do a little drugs, they dream, or they watch TV or go snowmobiling—which is awesome, by the way, snowmobiling is the greatest thing ever invented and don’t let any pansy tell you—or they—”
“What do you think of the gnats?”
“The gnats I like.”
“I love you.”
THE KITCHEN CHAIR
Her room had three kitchen chairs and no kitchen table. They were arranged around the idea of a table. She said, Who needs a table when you’ve got three chairs? She sat on one of them with her feet on a second, being his model.
For this portrait, he don’t need no easel. Give this man a pen and paper and he’ll create fission with words—
Christ, if he had even a modicum of talent, he should at least be able to describe her face.
“Hurry up, Popper, I’ve got class. We’re doing Hegel today. I am who I am not because I am ‘I’ at the moment, but because of who ‘I’ will become, which is unknown. Thus, I am my future self—who knows who this is?—and yet at the same time, that self exists. It’s only time that’s in the way. And since time itself is nothing, meaning from the point of view of our perception of it, not in the Newtonian sense, then we’re our future selves right now. We just don’t know who the hell we are. Isn’t that awesome?”
“Turn your head a little?”
“I’m unknowable. Why even bother? Don’t write about my double chin.”
“You don’t have one.”
“Good. Or my weird tooth.”
“What weird tooth?”
“Excellent. You make a fine painter in prose.”
“Where were you last night?”
“I came by around eleven.”
“You want to know where I was?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“You’re talking like I have to tell you.”
“Stop moving your eyes, your face keeps changing.”
“I’m late to class.”
“You’re right, I have no right, no right at all to monitor—”
“I slept in the antiapartheid shanty.”
“In the middle of the Diag? With who?”
“With other people who think apartheid is a scourge on the face of the earth—Hugh, Paul, and some girl named Polly.”
“You think I don’t think apartheid’s a scourge on the face of the earth?”
“I really don’t know what you think about apartheid.”
“I think apartheid is very bad. Does this mean you have to sleep with Hugh and Polly?”
“Listen, Popper, I got to get to class.”
For a long time after she left, he stared at her empty chair. Torn vinyl. Light blue. Little rubber feet on all four legs. A sad little chair empty of her body. Maybe it’s only in absence that we can get at it? Someone is gone, either to class—or clear out of your life—then fragments of a face emerge in a cold, still kitchen like a haunt. Joyce says absence is the highest form of presence. A small-boned face, high cheekbones, hidden ears only the tops of which poked out from her brown yellow hair, a chipped front tooth (a day camp accident involving a picnic table), slight upcurving nose, red from allergies. Roaming coffee eyes—
She won’t come together. Her face with her hair falling all over it.
IN THE DIAG
Age-old problem: if she chose him, there has got to be something wrong with her. So he followed her. Every Tuesday afternoon for a month, he’d wait for her after her class in Angell Hall and trail behind as she wandered around campus. It made sense at the time. How could he penetrate her secret realms if he himself was always hanging around?
The way people walk when they are with someone could not be more different from the way we walk alone. Alone, she was more timid than he’d expected, less charging around. With him she walked fast, sometimes stomped, laughed often, commented on everything and everybody. Now, those red boots I’m liking. And yet alone she seemed to blend in on the sidewalk. Suddenly shy, she looked at her feet when she walked.
To Popper, these revelations were thrilling: I’m dead, it’s like I’m watching my own nonexistence. With me, Kat strong, vivacious, brave. Without me, timorous. Popper would duck behind bushes and construction equipment and watch her sit against the same tree in the Diag (a tree he had no idea she had any relationship with, a tree they’d walked by together dozens of times and she’d never said, Here, this tree means something to me, let’s sit here) and pull out a book. He thought it must be Emerson. She’d been carrying him around for weeks now. She’d read a sentence, then put the book down and think about it. It may have been: Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. She’d gnaw on her lower lip, throw a stone at a drunken squirrel. (People said they’d done atomic experiments on Ann Arbor squirrels in the fifties, which explained the fact that they walked on their hind legs and gibbered at people all day long in fourteen different languages.) From her tree, she’d watch life go by on the crisscrossing diagonal sidewalks.
After a while she’d begin picking out a single person to follow with her eyes. A girl on crutches, a white-haired woman with clunky shoes, an angry tomato-faced professor, a fraternity pledge in a coat and tie, carrying an old tire slung over his shoulder. She’d follow each of them out of her line of sight as if they were heading out to sea never to be heard of again. Her eyes pinched into a sorrow he’d never seen on her face before. She even mourned the dork with the car tire.
It took spying on her a few times to understand that she wasn’t watching for herself—meaning the lack of herself in other people. He came to see she had nothing to do with this at all. It was only about the people she watched until they were gone, how they could just disappear like that. Because people just vanish. Around a corner, into a crowd, down the street, across town. Isn’t this a kind of death? To watch someone out of sight? Sure, some of them she might run across again, but most—even in a dinky city like this—she would never lay eyes on again.
Bedraggled blanket Wednesday in wettened spring, missing class, Kat and Popper spent, drained, languid, pants pulled back up; Kat on her back, bridged across Popper’s thighs, stares at the trees; he’s reading, the sunlight polka-dot through a stand of ash—a place deep in the Arboretum known as School Girl’s Glen. Earlier, Kat said, I’ll show you a schoolgirl, Glen—
Listen to this.KAT:
You never look at trees.POPPER:
It’s Faulkner. From The Wild Palms. It’s about a couple. Faulkner’s one Chicago book. Part of it’s even set in Wisconsin. Then this couple, they flee to Utah, where they almost freeze to death. It’s a strange book, very passionate.KAT:
These are white ash trees, you can tell by the waxless leaves. Or maybe they’re box elders. Read the Wisconsin part.POPPER (clears his throat):
They say love dies between two people. That’s wrong. It doesn’t die. It just leaves you, goes away, if you are not good enough, worthy enough. It doesn’t die; you’re the one that dies. It’s like the ocean; if you’re not good, if you begin to make a bad smell in it, it just spews you up somewhere to die. You die anyway, but I had rather drown in the ocean than be urped up onto a strip of dead beach—Damn. Urped not burped, now that’s fucking writing.KAT:
What the hell’s he yattering about? This isn’t very Wisconsinesque.POPPER:
Her, it’s a her talking. It’s Charlotte. She’s talking to Harry, the guy she’s run off with. She left her husband, Rat, because he was too respectable. There’s nothing Charlotte detests on the planet more than respectability. She’s an artist. Not a very good one, but this only makes her more passionate about art. In the book, she makes figurines and she sells them to Marshall Field’s. Harry’s a doctor, or almost a doctor. He’s poor and he’s never been in love before, which is part of the reason she’s run off with him. To, among other places, Wisconsin. To prove to him that love actually exists. I’m not reading this for class. Also, Charlotte left her two daughters with Rat. They don’t really figure in the story. Forget family, kids. Charlotte’s basically saying that in love it’s all or nothing. You half-ass it and you’re doomed—that’s when the bad smell—KAT:
The husband’s name is Rat?POPPER:
Apparently it means student, like a freshman, according to the helpful note at the back of the book.KAT:
Read the urped part again.POPPER:
You die anyway, but I had rather drown in the ocean than be urped up onto a strip of dead beach and be drifted away by the sun into a little foul—KAT:
Because it makes no sense. Anybody who drowns is eventually burped up onto the beach.POPPER:
Urped. Not everybody. What if you’re tied down by something? She’s talking about staying on the bottom for good. She’s talking about going down with the ship of love and never coming back to the surface—KAT:
And I’m saying eventually you wash up—She wants to drown in love and not be urped. She can’t have both.POPPER:
It’s a metaphor.KAT:
I just said it. If you’re not up to love, if you falter, if you lack the courage, it dies and you end up—well—urped. No better word for—KAT:
Urped! We’re all urped, Popper. Either way, urped no matter what we do. And her leaving her husband had nothing to do with running from respectability or family. Charlotte’s afraid of something like everybody’s afraid of something.POPPER:
Other choices. Everybody’s afraid of other choices.
Silence. He turns the page. The wind in the leaves. Kat watches the regal white ashes hardly sway. Or maybe they are box elders…POPPER:
What about this? I mean us. Love if you will. Because it can’t last, not even in Utah.KAT:
I like that better.
MANCHILD IN THE PROMISED LAND
She wasn’t just from northern Wisconsin, she was from the top of the top of northern Wisconsin. Ashland, on the south shore of Lake Superior. Her father taught at Northland College. Where hippies go to freeze, Kat said. Her neighbor, the alcoholic astronomer lying on his back in the yard with a bottle of Jim Beam, raging at the clouds about the aurora borealis, how there’s no aurora borealis like our aurora borealis and everybody else’s borealises can go fuck themselves. Her high school boyfriend. He had a van with orange shag in the back where she lost her virginity, an idiot phrase if there ever was one, Kat said, because she also lost actual things back there, too—her keys, a comb, a roach clip, ten bucks, a Guatemalan necklace. Her parents’ wedding in Duluth. How her mother’s mother and her father’s mother refused to sanctify the union of a lace-curtain Irish girl and a radical anarchist Jew by attending the ceremony, so they sent their respective husbands, who came and played their parts. Her mother’s father, his long ruddy face stoic. Your mother’s heart, dear, will mend with the advent of children, and her father’s father, a wobbly kibitzer pointing to Kat’s mom and muttering, A beautiful strawberry girl, why all the fuss, why all the disunion over a strawberry girl? Their house on Broadway Street, Superior at the end of the block, the ore docks reaching out into the lake like skyscrapers flat on their backs.
Her room, that attic tree-house room. 1096 Olivia, Ann Arbor. Three sides of windows and a bed. All the days and nights of 1096 Olivia, the branches scratching against the panes. What about the day her roommates were gone and the landlord came over while they were fucking and jammed his finger in the buzzer like he knew what they were up to up there? From the window Popper could see the top of his head and Kat said, Hey, faster, I think it’s the landlord. And when they finally went downstairs and she opened the door to him, Kat said, “Terribly sorry we took so long, Mr. Delano, we were just finishing screwing.” The man looked at her with bafflement and then with real fear, and, smiling with his teeth, backing away, said, “I’ll come back Sunday to plaster.”
Her books. They line the low shelves. V. S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Chomsky, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Walden Two, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, The Brothers Karamazov, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Ward Six and Other Stories, Manchild in the Promised Land, Call It Sleep.
Popper fingered The Brothers Karamazov. “My dad’s like the father in this one.”
“Are you going to murder him?”
“I haven’t decided.”
College? What else is there to remember? In college, I wrote small stories where nothing much happened; read books nobody asked me to—It’s where I met Kat—
Try to not remember.
Always more. The mole inside her left armpit. The way she always ate with her hand over her mouth. The time she wanted to legally change her name to Bernadette Peters. Because isn’t she the perfect concoction of brains and beauty and airhead? Why shouldn’t the state recognize my right to honor her? Or the time they listened to Astral Weeks for two hours a day for six weeks and could air-violin all the violin parts on “Madame George.” And what about the storm on that canoe trip? The storm on that island beach in the Quetico, the hours and the hours of that storm, the two of them in the leaking tent, drenched sleeping bags, drenched clothes, the thunder above their heads, ceaseless like some gagging god, Popper trying to plug holes with sogged underwear, and Kat saying, “Aw fuck, Popper, we’re going to die Canadians.”
A BACKGROUND GIRL
After all, an entire nation consists only of certain isolated incidents, does it not?
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions
CENTURY OF PROGRESS
What is the temperature?
—Sponsored by Havoline Motor Oil
This question asked every day, not only by the millions who are attending the Century of Progress, but also by people all over the globe who are not fortunate enough to see these wonders, is being answered for you and yours by this two hundred foot high thermometer that the Indian Refining Company erected as a monument to Chicago’s climate.
Bernice Slansky scoffs, unimprssed. Even she knows they can make a thermometer small enough to fit in your pocket. And to jam up other places just fine! This is how they are going to pull the world out of its messes, by building Jack and the Giant Beanstalk thermometers? Fee-fi-fo-fum! Not that she cares. No, the world can do whatever it likes. Bankrupt is fine with me. I’m going to be a dancer. Don’t tell Mother. Then I’m going to move to Moscow like Isadora Duncan, marry a Bolshevik, and dance, dance. Because the world will always need and not need dancers in the same ratio, progress, no progress, she thinks as she twirls across the mass of hats and women in clackety shoes, looking for her lost in the crowd father.
September 4, 1944
Mrs. Seymour Popper
1308 Lunt Avenue
Chicago 26, Illinois
Angel, I got through today pretty well considering how much I miss you and the children—At least the schoolwork is easing up, thank God—the toughest course is navigation, which is right up my alley—All those hours up and down the Calumet River—You know, New York is a funny place—The Jews here for instance are in such numbers that they don’t make any bones about their existence—They broadcast it—going to the ball game in Brooklyn I passed a building with a sign on it: SCHNORRERS CLUB—I almost fell off my seat laughing—Oh, Beanie, I don’t know what to do—At times I have such a great feeling of exhilaration and I’m all for going through with this with all the resolution I can muster—Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition—Other times I’m down in the dumps again and my heart cries out just to be with you and the babies and the hell with everything—Counsel me, darling, I’m here all alone—
Bronx Station, New York City
She stands before the mirrors in the ballet studio on East Jackson Boulevard. Sweat leaks down her face, her neck, her chest, soaking the front of her leotard. This body, this sweat. It all might be over, but nobody can take away this body, this sweat. Even at this small-time level. And, yes, once there was more. Yes, once the great Lincoln Kirstein himself had seen her dancing for Ruth Page in Frankie and Johnny at the Chicago Opera. Bernice was only a background girl, nobody special, but after the performance—how often does she remember this?—while the principals, Fay and Irene, and the rest of the pratty titterers were talking a mile a minute, he approached her, bland Bernice, his huge forehead gleaming, and said, as if nothing could be more simple, Why not come dance in New York?
So she didn’t have the talent to stay. Who says anybody has to have the talent to stay? She went, didn’t she?
Bernice extends her arms, slides, runs a step, a grand fouetté right, then half-turns. Pauses. Muffs a tour jeté. Lands, turns, slides right, slides left, and is about to leap again—
Telly, the office girl, pokes her head into the studio. Long-boned, storklike, dreamy, can dance.
“Your son’s here. Handsome.”
Bernice grips the bar and raises her left leg. In the mirror she examines the small pouches below her eyes. No matter how much sleep she gets—the unstoppable droop.
She was nineteen. She came home from New York four months later.
“Tell him I’m busy. My handbag is on the bench. Tell him he can take what he needs.”
Her body slackens. Her men, their need. Seymour came back from the war terrified of his own children. Esther’s crying in the night used to send him over the edge of the bed. Man overboard! The man will never get over the war. He felt so alive, he says. They should have sent women to fight the Japs. We wouldn’t have come back sentimental about it after. Drop the bomb and be done with it. And now Philip’s growing up like his father. All the talk, the charm, the confidence—but, like Seymour, isn’t something missing? She leaps. Again. Lands wobbly and thinks she knows. Hell, you don’t even need talent. Only a little grace. It’s free, Seymour, Phil, it’s free, my precious dolts. You don’t have to scheme or lie or cheat or bluster for it. Nijinsky knew and he was crazy. He said, I merely leap—and pause.
When did I start forgetting this myself?
Grand battement to fifth position—effacé. Right foot in back. Arm in arabesque. Toes never leave the floor. No fancy stuff. Pinch fanny. Front back front. Plié turn and hold it.
The room begins to fill with students. Bernice stops and mops her neck with a towel.
September 18, 1944
Mrs. Seymour Popper
1308 Lunt Avenue
Chicago 26, Illinois
Now I certainly know how you feel—Look, all I can say is that there still happens to be a war on—a tough one—I wish I wasn’t in it, but if I had to do it all over again I suppose I would do it the same way—We both know so many people who broke their necks to stay out—I still can’t say I admire them for their actions—Men like Sid and Milt, yes, they stayed home with their families—But imagine the world, Beanie, if every man shrugged his duty, what would it look like? You think these Japs are kidding around? Your package came today—You certainly sent enough cheese! Thanks a million—
Bronx Station, New York City
Schnitzel and pfifferling and a hard-cooked egg. You eat on the run like a man of this city—standing up. We are men at feed. One thing these Krauts know how to do is stuff a sausage. Two-dollar lunch at Berghoff’s. Like a mead hall of old. Don’t I remember my Beowulf! Eat. Drink. Go out and kill Grendel. Waiters sail by, hoisting silver trays. Fellow upstarts munch their sandwiches. And when you’re done with him, go and kill his mama. He’ll tell it back at the office. See if any of the literary types know what’s what. Seymour reaches for the crown of his hat and nudges the brim closer to his eyes. Little piece of fat between his front teeth. He niggles it with his tongue. Can’t dislodge. Need toothpick. But not an unpleasant thing, a little fat. Damn, the things I squeeze a little enjoyment out of now. In the war I used to prop my mouth open with toothpicks to stay awake. Prick your gums and you can go for hours. They’re calling this shootout in Korea a war now also. Soon every little pissant fistfight they’re going to call a war.
Seymour eats alone—in the company of fellow hats, true, but it’s not the same. There’s no camaraderie. And the money game? More brutal in spades than shooting. And there’s no such thing as loyalty in the business of business. He looks out the big window at the scurriers winging by on West Adams, a slither of soap-white light peeks from between the buildings.
He might have gotten lucky. Yanked offstage early. Lost at sea! Wouldn’t that have been something? Typical dream of the sailor returned. When did I become so average? Long live Seymour; he died in the Pacific, his whole life ahead of him. You hear about Sy Popper? Christ, what a shame. Two kids. Drop-dead wife. Bernice was a ballerina, wasn’t she a ballerina before she married Sy? My God, the man had the whole shebang. Poor Bernice. Not even a rock to go visit.
1308 LUNT AVENUE
Twenty-three years at 1308 Lunt in Rogers Park and Bernice knows every creak in the floorboards. The one at the top of the stairs by Esther’s room that always moans long under her left foot. And what about the little window in the attic, just under the peak of the roof? Once—only one time in all these years did she stoop and look out of it. Impossible to see much through the grime. She’d spat, tried to clean the window with her fingers. The view disappointed her. Only Lunt Avenue through a blur of spit and dirt. The brown lawns, the leafless trees, the new sidewalk, the cars lined up and down the street like ants, bumper to bumper. What had she been expecting to see?
And tomorrow? Tomorrow we will box ourselves up and move northward to become a new address. But we lug our old ones around with us, don’t we? Isn’t a new house number a sham? At least in the beginning, before it begins to weigh anything? Like those first few hours in a wedding dress when you’re lulled into thinking the ring on your finger will change things.
Tomorrow, piece by piece, the furniture will be carried out of here, only to be plumped down again on the North Shore: 38 Sylvester Place, Highland Park.
It’s not that she doesn’t want to leave. It’s that she always wants to leave. After the North Shore, where?
At the Century of Progress, Bernice remembers wandering into a fortune-teller’s tent and having her future read by a bug-eyed white lady done up to look like a Gypsy. The white Gypsy had gripped her arm and held tight when Bernice laughed in her face.
“Your eyes, missus, why do they always run?”
October 2, 1944
Mrs. Seymour Popper
1308 Lunt Avenue
Chicago 26, Illinois
Look, let’s be clear, I know the score somewhat better than you appear to be willing to give me credit for—I intend to come home to make you and our children a lovely happy life—I’m not quite playing cops and robbers here—This is just one of those things a man has to do—except occasionally a guy likes to feel that at home someone has some understanding—or even God forbid a little pride—we leave for Virginia on Friday—
Bronx Station, New York City
ONE OF US
Northbrook, Illinois, 1961
It’s called the Villa Venice, a nightclub and casino in the suburbs, done up in red tassels with waiters dressed as gondoliers. They row you to your table in a real boat down a real canal with water and everything. Sam Giancana owns the place, and his friend Sinatra and his boys, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, are appearing at the grand opening as a favor. Bernice and Seymour Popper are in the crowd, at a table with Sid and Babette Kaufman. Sid got them tickets. Sid Kaufman always gets them tickets.
A woman at the next table says, “No, he’s a real Jew. I hear he’s got a rabbi and everything.”
A man says, “Irene, Sammy can buy a rabbi and stick him on the lawn. Hey, you know what they call him in Harlem?”
“The kosher coon!”
“Oh, Bill, shush.”
Dino comes out first and stumbles around a melody, murmuring: Drink to me only, that’s all I ax, ask, and I will drink to you… I left my heart in France and Cisco. The crowd laps it up. Dino’s so saucy. How can you not love Dino?
Sinatra follows and does a solo number, but he’s languid. Nobody in Chicago wants to hear “Chicago.” It’s embarrassing. What, you think we’re a bunch of yokels out here, Frank? He slows the tempo a little. Toddlin’ town, he says, not singing, talking it, swingin’ town. Still, the crowd doesn’t go for it and the song’s a bomb.
Finally, Sammy comes on and everybody starts waking up. He introduces himself as Harry Belafonte and starts with a hammed-up “What Kind of Fool Am I?” At first it gets a laugh. Sammy smiles wide, but then keeps going with it, goes deeper into the song. The crowd stops laughing and starts listening. Sammy, my God, that voice. Even mocking Belafonte, even without trying. The man sings a joke and still he sounds like an angel.
Why can’t I cast away the mask of play and live my life?
The mobsters in the crowd start scratching themselves. The boy can sing, can’t he now?
Then the highlight of the night, Frank and Dean join Sammy onstage. This is what everybody came for, the clan clowning. You want to listen to their music, put on a record at home.
Sammy sings, “She’s Funny That Way.” I’ve got a woman… crazy for me… She’s funny that way… I ain’t got a dollar. Can’t save a cent… She wouldn’t holler…
“Wouldn’t holler?” Dean says. “That’s too bad.”
She’d live in a tent.
“Jewish people don’t live in tents,” Frank says.
That Frank. He’s not funny till he’s funny, but by God when’s he’s funny—biggest laugh of the night goes to Sinatra.
“Don’t live in tents!” Sid Kaufman howls. Even Babette laughs a little, and it always takes a lot to get Babette Kaufman to smile. Bernice doesn’t laugh. She only keeps looking at the stage. All night, she’s only been looking toward the stage.
Excerpted from Love and Shame and Love by Orner, Peter Copyright © 2011 by Orner, Peter. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Peter Orner was born in Chicago and is the author of two widely praised books, Esther Stories and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. Orner is also the editor of two books of nonfiction, Underground America and Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and The Best American Short Stories, and has been awarded two Pushcart Prizes. A 2006 Guggenheim Fellow, Orner has taught at the University of Montana and the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and is a faculty member at San Francisco State University. He lives in San Francisco.
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